Thank you, Secretary General Almagro, for standing up for the principles of democracy and human rights at the core of this institution. And thanks to Foreign Minister Brolo for hosting.
The theme of this 51st General Assembly is “renewal” in our region – and that’s an apt focus, given the challenges we face. I’d like to focus on three areas in particular where renewal is crucial to meet the needs and aspirations of people in our hemisphere.
First, we have to show democracy can deliver for people in a crisis, like the current COVID-19 pandemic. Latin America and the Caribbean account for about 8 percent of the world’s population, but the region has experienced 32 percent of the world’s COVID-19 related deaths. The region’s economy contracted by nearly 8 percent last year, and more than 22 million additional people fell into poverty.
Our governments need to show that we’re there for our people when they need us most. That means stopping the virus’s spread, which we can do primarily by getting vaccines to everyone, everywhere. It means taking bold steps right now to save lives, from solving for shortages in respirators, to ensuring all front-line health workers have PPE. And it means helping those who are struggling to make ends meet after losing their livelihoods. The United States recognizes that we have an important role to play here. We’ve sent nearly 50 million doses of safe, effective vaccines to countries in the region – free of charge and with no strings attached – and we’ve provided hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid to communities.
Beyond addressing these immediate needs, this massive crisis is an opportunity to build back better, especially for the underserved communities that have been hit hardest. We’ve invested more than $10 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean through the International Development Finance Corporation since 2020, which in turn is leveraging billions more in private investment. We’ve persuaded multilateral banks to reinvest in the region, and made an effective call to action on Special Drawing Rights. And we’re supporting programs across the Americas aimed at promoting inclusive opportunity – from the Small Business Development Centers empowering small and medium-sized entrepreneurs in the Caribbean to the newly launched Small and Less Populous Island Economies Initiative, which fosters sustainable livelihoods in the places hardest hit by the climate crisis.
Second, we must renew our commitment to defending democracy in the region. Because 20 years after we all signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a number of governments are flouting its most basic principles.
Consider the undemocratic election held a few days ago in Nicaragua. In anticipation, the Ortega-Murillo government banned opposition parties and arbitrarily locked up seven opposition candidates, alongside scores of journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society leaders. An overwhelming majority of OAS member states supported a strong resolution that condemned the Ortega-Murillo government’s abusive actions and committed to revisit this issue at this General Assembly Session. The Inter-American Democratic Charter prescribes concrete consequences for governments in the region that jettison democracy and crack down violently on human rights. The OAS’s credibility as an institution that defends democracy depends on living up to that charter.
Cuba is another example. We all saw the government’s violent crackdown when tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets last July to peacefully demand the government meet their basic needs and to call for freedom and human rights. Many of the people unjustly detained in those demonstrations are still languishing in Cuba’s prisons, including a 26-year-old named Yoan de la Cruz, who is facing an eight-year prison sentence for livestreaming a protest. Cuban civil society leaders have called for more demonstrations on November 15th. Every country in the hemisphere should send a clear message that people across the Americas, including in Cuba, have a right to peacefully assemble and express their opinions.
In Venezuela, the Maduro regime continues to deny people’s right to choose their own leaders. The United States supports a negotiated solution that leads to free and fair elections, as well as the restoration of the rule of law, respect for human rights, and addressing people’s vital humanitarian needs. And we call for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in Venezuela.
But it would be a mistake to think the only places we need to focus on renewal are in the region’s closed governments. We have watched with alarm as some democratically elected governments have used the powers of state to undermine democratic institutions from within and curtail fundamental freedoms – arbitrarily removing judges and prosecutors to evade accountability using tax authorities to intimidate journalists and political opponents paying “troll farms” to drown out and threaten their critics on social media. And we have seen, including in the United States, just how fragile democracy can be. That’s why every democracy in the region must shore up its foundations. We can do that by bolstering independent institutions, and the judges, prosecutors, journalists, and civil society leaders who make them strong. We can invest in election monitoring, which not only ensures the integrity of elections, but strengthens citizens’ trust in their outcomes.
The OAS Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation has played an essential role in providing independent, credible monitoring across the region. We expect its monitors to play that role in Honduras’s elections on November 28 and in Haiti, when a Haitian-led process to restore the country’s democratic institutions makes elections possible. And we can continue to strengthen the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my adamant support for the candidate we’ve nominated, Professor Alexandra Huneeus, whose deep knowledge and experience would be a tremendous asset for the Commission.
The third area where we can renew our commitment to democracy is by tackling the chronic economic and social problems that people across the region face in their daily lives. Widespread corruption. Rampant violence. Unequal access to social services and to opportunities.
On corruption, that means looking across the region to find the most effective anti-corruption efforts and disseminate them closing the weak links in our interconnected system, which corrupt actors are adept at exploiting and enhancing the capacity and tools of journalists, anti-corruption campaigners, businesses, and other partners.
On strengthening civilian security, we must complement our long-standing investments in training and equipping the security forces with more ambitious efforts to address the root causes of the region’s rampant violence. That includes expanding economic opportunities for underserved populations, who may be drawn to illicit activity because they feel they have no other options reducing the demand in the United States that’s fueling much of the region’s illicit activity and supporting community-based violence prevention programs.
We also have to invest in programs and policies that will make a real difference in the lives of working and low-income families – whether that’s bolstering labor standards expanding access to adequate education and health or providing more inclusive opportunities in areas like building the next generation of sustainable infrastructure, which is crucial to addressing the climate crisis. And we have to do it in way that’s transparent that empowers local communities, rather than miring them in debt that’s sustainable, rather than extractive and that respects human rights.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Ecuador and Colombia. In Quito, I gave a speech on how democracy can better deliver in the Americas. Afterward, a young woman named Fernanda Perugachi rose to ask a question. She had made a long journey from her rural indigenous community in Imbabura province to attend the speech. Fernanda talked about how she had benefitted from opportunities that had been closed off to past generations – such as the chance to study at a university – which had in turn made her a better advocate for her community. And she wanted to know what governments like ours were going to do to close enduring gaps in areas like education and opportunities for women.
She said: Quote “I’m a young person who believes that pursuing your dreams has no limits, because dreams are yours alone and nobody can take them away.” End quote.
And this, as much as anything else, is why I’m optimistic about our capacity to renew democracy in our hemisphere. Not only because we can deliver for people in times of crisis strengthen our institutions and stand with people demanding democracy and human rights and tackle enduring problems like corruption and violence. But because democracy has a unique advantage: It will continue to empower committed young leaders like Fernanda, who will demand we do better who will dedicate their lives to making our system stronger and who are determined not let anyone stand in the way of their dreams.